Google Patents May Be Worthless

July 22, 2008

Thank goodness I am not an attorney. The Patent Law Blog ran an essay today (July 21, 2008) called “The Death of Google’s Patents”. You may want to read the full text of the essay here. I went through the write up two times and still came away wondering about the implications of John F. Duffy’s article in “Patently: Patent Law Blog.”

The key point in the essay was a court ruling that says, “You cannot patent a software process.” There may be some exceptions, but if a company like Google has a patent on a software system or method, well, those patents are toast. (You can see why I am not legal eagle material.)

Once Mr. Duffy drops this information bomb, he moves on to the subject of Google’s PageRank invention. If the decisions reviewed in this Web log post are ones with bite, Google could lose patent protection. Keep in mind that the PageRank invention is not Google’s. The patent proudly announcements that Stanford University is the assignee, but I may be misreading the PDF in front of me. My recollection is that the patent carries a note that some of the work was performed under a National Science Foundation grant. Does that mean that some or all of the PageRank “invention” is usable by other companies?

The rulings summarized in this thought provoking essay could (will?) undermine Google’s legal position for some, maybe all, of the firm’s 350 patent documents.


Could Google’s patent documents end up in the garbage dump?

Does Google Have a Patent Strategy?

At the Boston Search Engine Meeting in April 2008, a young wizard and former Microsoftie, asked in the Q&A session after my speech, “Just because a company has a patent, does that mean the company will use the disclosed invention?”

I replied, “Nope, patents might be little more than expensive PR or a way to get on a conference program.”

Let me explain my view about Google’s inventions:

  1. Google did not get its patent document act together until 2001, prior to that time, Google filed comparatively few inventions. Some were about hardware for its servers; others were for more meaningful systems and methods such as quality of service and data management. By 2004, Google was increasing its filings, and the inventions could be grouped into some juicy clusters.
  2. By 2006, Google’s patent documents began rolling up earlier patent filings. The idea to my unschooled eye was to clean up and bundle functions. References to other documents “incorporated in their entirety” became standard boilerplate.
  3. In 2007, the inventions took an interesting turn. Several Google engineers created patent applications that embraced the researchers’ previous work, sometimes at other companies. I wrote about one patent series in my BearStearns’ report on the Programmable Search Engine. Anna Patterson, founder of Xift, issued a similar chain of patent applications.
  4. In 2008, Google evidences a number of new “inventors” and interesting activity in advertising, data management, and several other interesting areas.

My reading of these documents is not for their validity. I examine Google’s patent documents because some of them offer an interesting but cloudy window on how the Google infrastructure operates. In the July issue of KMWorld, I wrote an essay that includes a diagram showing one of Google’s data models for usage data. I don’t know if the invention is valid. I do know that I found the diagram fascinating because it makes use of Google’s “infinite rows” and on-the-fly data management capability.

I think Google has a patent strategy that is designed to disclose certain inventions. Google does not make it easy to locate some of its technical information, and I have encountered patent documents that seem to be the work of Googlers but the assignee is not Google.

My hypothesis is the Google discloses only certain inventions, probably for the purpose of horse trading in the event of litigation or making it possible for Google legal eagles to tie certain matters in knots, thus giving Google time to work around an issue.


Let’s assume that PageRank is invalidated. Most of the engineers with whom I have spoken over the years know how PageRank works. PageRank itself was not an invention like the wheel. PageRank is a little bit of voting, a pinch of Gene Garfield citation analysis, a dash of Clever, and some math.

If invalidated, my reaction is that Google has moved beyond PageRank, using systems and methods only partially disclosed in its patent documents, technical papers, and speeches. Some of the company’s most prescient technology is not in patent documents and kept in Googzilla’s vest pocket.

Over the years, Google’s competitors have ignored the obvious with regard to Google. The company is not a hot house of raw innovation. Google uses bits and pieces from many different sources. Like the ladies in the hollow who make quilts, many different pieces come together to make a new quilt. Google is like this. Most parts are not new. Google has used the mathematician’s gift for finding a new way of looking at problems. Then, like a gifted mathematician, Google uses many known methods to create the new, “hidden in plain sight” solution–the Google infrastructure, its code libraries, its data-driven decision process, and, of course, the company’s preference for engineers, scientists, and mathematicians, not lawyers, accountants, and marketers. I discuss this idea at length in my 2007 Google Version 2.0 study, published by Infonortics. The study costs money, however.

In my opinion, if Google loses patent protection for its inventions, the company will continue on its merry way. The company has other demons more threatening to its success at this time.

Stephen Arnold, July 22, 2008


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